Starve Hollow Memorial Day camping a family tradition for many


VALLONIA — The fire in the Starve Hollow State Recreation Area pit was seemingly on low simmer on an 80-degree afternoon in sunshine, the wood burning almost soundlessly. Until Amy Blair stood, added a fresh log and enjoyed the flame’s bright orange flare-up.

Neither Amy, nor her husband Steve of Medora needed the light, or the warmth, as they sat outside their RV in comfortable poses, but they stared at the renewed campfire.

Even if the fire had no chill to cure, no chili or hot dogs to heat, it filled a role as a psychic symbol: It may not be written anywhere in the rules, but it is understood if you camp, there must be a campfire.

“Oh, you’ve got to have a fire,” Steve Blair said.

Darin Weatherford, tending another fire cooking pork tenderloin around the bend as part of a group of five encompassing two families, plus a dog named Jake, demonstrated the lure of fire even in warm temperatures and daylight.

They were all seated in a semi-circle talking, the typical arrangement of how everyone from one tent or a couple of RVs sits and watches flames flicker orange.

A campfire comes with the territory. Camping is absolutely the top-rated occasion when fire is your friend. That has pretty much been true since mankind first walked the earth.

Science being what science does (and since The New York Times was presumably not present) an examination of burned antelope bones from caves in South Africa near the Kalahari Desert, suggested man first assembled the items for campfires 1.6-million years ago. That anecdote is termed “the oldest known controlled fire” as opposed to a careless camper tossing a lit match in the forest.

Sounds like a good campfire story.

Start of summer

Memorial Day has long served as the traditional summer start of camping for Starve Hollow in Vallonia — and elsewhere in Indiana — a three-day holiday weekend escape from work and school.

“Historically, this would have been the kickoff to our season,” said Cassie Stillwell, the Department of Natural Resources’ assistant property manager.

The 2024 quirk in the schedule, however, was the eclipse, resulting in a full campground on and around April 8 to watch the moon pass between the earth and the sun.

There was a full house for that show. There is always a full house for Memorial Day, too, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, Halloween and all summer weekends. Indeed, making a reservation for those time periods has almost become competitive sport, with a designated family member on the computer at the appropriate moment months ahead of time to jockey for a precious reservation.

Those with experience know the drill, limbering up finger muscles as the clock ticks down to reserve. Folks like the Blairs, who have been Starve Hollow regulars for years, marvel at how it has become more challenging to book a space at a time desired.

“It’s not like you can just book when you want,” Amy Blair said.

True devotees of Starve Hollow, the Blairs know how to massage the system, making reservations not merely for those ultra-competitive weekend dates, but seeking less-in-demand 14-day stays at a time — the maximum.

They are among the repeat customers with brand loyalty to Starve Hollow.

Starve Hollow is 280 acres, its own entity sliced off from the 18,000-acre Jackson-Washington State Forest next door in Brownstown and just 15 miles from Seymour.

It offers fishing in Starve Hollow Lake, swimming, canoeing, hiking trails, and wildlife residents such as whitetail deer, ruffed grouse and turkey.

There are 52 full hook-up camping sites with electric, water and sewer, 87 electric hookup spaces and 17 cabins. Ordinarily, Memorial Day is a break-in organizational session for staff, but this year the eclipse camping days seemed like good practice.

Americans have their favorite national parks, from Yellowstone in Wyoming to Yosemite in California, from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the Everglades in Florida, unique places millions may visit annually.

Compared to those settings, Starve Hollow may seem small and tucked away in a rural corner of Indiana, but property manager Kevin Snyder recognizes to many Hoosiers Starve Hollow is their personal slice of heaven. It also is meaningful to come and keep on coming there over Memorial Day, tradition built over generations.

“We are making memories naturally here,” Snyder said. “This place is that place for a lot of people.”

Ask the Christophers from Brownstown. Jim Christopher Jr., 56, has been visiting Starve Hollow with his father, Jim Sr., 86, for decades when the sleeping accommodations were tents, not the upgraded RV inhabited in the campground now.

Chandler Christopher, 31, a Seymour fireman, accompanied by his children, Dawson, 5, and Landyn, 2, has followed those generations. Jim Jr. said the family moved out of tents about 30 years ago after a stormy, flooding stay at Starve Hollow when he had to hold the tent roof up with one hand and cradle baby Chandler, 1 then, in the other.

“That was the end of it for me,” Jim Jr. said.

That also was a vivid memory, for sure.

Starve Hollow regulars

Shawn and Jennifer Burton of Greenville camp at Starve Hollow seven times a year, she said, and their allegiance goes way back, too. Shawn Burton’s mother camped there 60 years ago.

The Burtons’ Memorial Day residence was a 40-foot RV, big enough for comfort and to withstand any unexpected nasty weather.

“You could live in it,” Shawn Burton said.

Staying for a week this visit, Jennifer said it takes determination to target bookings and the number of people who want in at Starve Hollow only seems to have escalated since COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic, it was noted more people took to the outdoors in family groups.

“We thought it would die down after the first couple of years,” Jennifer Burton said of the hustle for camping spots. “There is a celebration when you get your reservation.”

The Blairs are regulars, though they live in Medora, which is only six miles away. If they overlook anything, they can dash home and get it. Such as a grandchild. During those two-week excursions, they trade off the young ones for short stays each.

“We’re here to relax and it is way convenient to home,” Steve said.

Starve Hollow is almost a personal backyard park for them and they have made new friends with other regular visitors.

Amy works for the school and Steve is a highway worker. Hanging out at Starve Hollow is their idea of paradise in a natural setting without driving a thousand miles to get there.

“We almost live here,” Amy Blair said. “We love it here.”

Fun for all ages

There were kids pedaling mini-bicycles, kids carried in mothers’ arms, kids playing bean-bag toss. Even if such a thing is unheard of in the present day, there were kids not gazing at cellphones.

As was illustrated by the Christophers, Starve Hollow Memorial Day camping was strongly linked to family. Rows of RVs lined the camping spots near the lake, on the opposite side of the park, and everywhere it was legal to park. The grassy patches around the vehicles and the roadways between the sites were filled with playing kids.

On one fishing pier, Jack Hudelson, 7, of Orleans, and an on-the-spot acquaintance, similarly aged named Kian, were serious about catching and releasing bluegill, counting them and competing, though by a dinner break they had brought in three apiece.

Two other boys in their early teens also were fishing, but not catching, and only pretended to taunt the younger guys. They periodically yelled, “Fish on!” even when there was no fish on.

“We’re the only ones who have been catching fish,” Kian noted.

The boys pondered their attraction to fishing. Kian philosophized, “When I catch fish, I love it. When I don’t catch fish, I don’t.” Jack said, “I like it either way.” Two perspectives on the age-old sport.

The same phrase could have been uttered by Holly Hudelson, Jack’s mother, only about Starve Hollow itself.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s a hidden gem in Indiana.”

The temperature began cooling and it was a good time to start a fire for all. No telling what stories might be told, scary ghost tales, reminisces of past stays at Starve Hollow.

Or Jack explaining to everyone how the wiggles and struggles of fish he caught didn’t let them get away until he said it was OK.

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